Sermon - Second Sunday before Advent - Matthew 25.14-30
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
That’s a refrain we’ve heard emanating from various politicians and other high-profile figures during the pandemic. None of them, of course, seek to promote that state of things. Rather, they are describing and lamenting the state of things as they currently stand.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer is also the phrase one comes across when reading commentaries on the parable which features in today’s reading from St Matthew’s gospel.
Verse 29 says, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
The same phrase features in Luke’s version of the parable which can be found in chapter 19 (vv.11-27)). Verse 26 reads: “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
Similar phrases are found after the parables of the sower and the lamp in Mark 4.25 and Luke 8.18.
It’s a phrase which suggests a parable in which aggressive trading and risk taking in the pursuit of wealth are rewarded whereas a more cautious approach taking care not to lose money is not. It’s one of the reasons why I find the parable not an easy one to read and I’m not alone in my discomfort. Paula Gooder, in her latest book, The Parables, describes it as a “curious and slightly troubling” parable.
The parable of the talents, as it is known, is one of those parables which is said to address the proper attitude and behaviour to be adopted in the face of the coming of the Son of Man and is usually interpreted as recommending responsible activity, with its emphasis on positive action and proactive preparation for the end times rather than lazy and fearful passivity (a theme also evident in our other readings today from Zephaniah and 1 Thessalonians.
It is a parable which, over the centuries, commentators have described as reminding us to use the gifts and opportunities we have to serve God and not to waste them but to invest them in a way which furthers his kingdom. It is this parable, of course, which is the origin of the word “talent” in English. In the Old Testament a talent was a unit of measurement for weighing precious metals, usually gold and silver. In the New Testament, it was a value of money or coin. One talent was worth a huge amount – some commentators estimating it at around 2 years’ wages, others suggesting even more than that.
Traditional interpretations of the parable have the master representing Jesus who has left us here on earth for a while and who will return at the end of time for the reckoning of how we’ve used or misused our “talents”. Preachers often cite the first two slaves as heroic examples of people who don’t squander their talents but put them to good use. The third slave is described as “wicked”, “lazy” and “worthless” (evil and useless in some translations) for not being as enterprising as the others and is condemned to eschatological darkness.
But as someone who is not the greatest of risk takers, particularly when it comes to investing money, my sympathy rather lies with the poor third slave.
I read somewhere that often in old three part tales like this, the third person would be the hero. Not so here. But what did he do that was SO wrong?
“Entrusted” with one talent he opted for the safest course, burying the money in the ground. In those days burying money was regarded as the best security against theft. It was even advised in the Talmud (the Jewish law). Maybe the slave was worried that his fellow slaves would take too much of a gamble and squander his master’s wealth? Might he have wanted to ensure that something was left for his master to come back to? Was he simply engaging in prudent financial management in uncertain times, seeking to preserve at least something for his master’s return?
The answer to those particular questions may be gleaned from Luke’s version of the parable in which the slaves (ten of them there) are explicitly instructed by their master to “trade”, in which case we might view the slave here as having deliberately disobeyed a clear instruction. We’re not told how the other slaves made their money but it may not have been ethical. Some commentators contend that one problem at the heart of the parable is that the only real way to secure the kind of returns the other slaves did was by acting unethically – one common way of investing money back then being by way of mortgage or bridge loans to struggling farmer families who were charged exorbitant interest rates. The Torah forbade the charging of interest to other Israelites and the poor so perhaps the third slave was simply refusing to participate in the unscrupulous practices of his day? Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with a corrupt system and the wealthy landowners who had all the power.
The parable tells how the third slave insults his master - essentially calling him a thief (for reaping what he did not sow) as well as harsh. Might the slave simply have been speaking truth to power? After all, the master doesn’t deny the charges, does he?
Therein lies another difficulty I have with Matthew’s version of the parable, the depiction of the master (said to be Jesus or God) as harsh and punitive and as one who condemns his slave as worthless and casts him out into the darkness. Surely that is at odds with a God we know to be loving and merciful, a God who sows liberally and generously and who gives us more than we expect or deserve?
Should we really see the master as God or Jesus as is commonly assumed?
Another interpretation of the parable offered by some commentators is to view it not as a story directly about God but about a well known situation at the time, a story about Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, who, like his father before him, sailed to Rome to receive his kingship but who fared very differently from his father, returning home to treat his enemies harshly only eventually to be deposed by the Romans and banished.
Some consider the parable to be less about talents or money and more about banking, oppression and power, viewing it as the story of a slave who refuses to play along with a corrupt and immoral system and who pays an awful price. They ask if Jesus is simply telling it as it is, warning that if we stand up to denounce an evil system we too may have to pay for it.
Others question if the parable might also be viewed as a criticism of and warning to those who sought to preserve the status quo by keeping the treasures of their traditions to themselves. I remind myself that Matthew writes from a different perspective than Luke and his harsher account (in Luke’s version the slave simply has the talent taken away from him) may well have been directed at the Jewish religious leaders who were so hostile to Jesus and of whom his Gospel is often so critical.
As I contemplate all these possible interpretations I find myself asking what was the master really unhappy about? Was it, in fact, the slave’s failure to make him more money or something else?
Was the master really as harsh as the slave suggests? Whilst he doesn’t deny the slave’s harsh accusations nor does he admit to them. Rather he says IF you think that’s what I’m like why didn’t you do what you knew would please me?
Did the servant misjudge the master? After all, look at the master’s treatment of the other slaves. Slaves who he deems trustworthy in just “a few things” he puts in charge of “many things”. The reward for their faithfulness is greater responsibility, greater autonomy and a greater share in the management of his estate.
I wonder, was the third slave’s perception of his master distorted and his fear of him misplaced? He thought he would be treated harshly if he failed to make a profit or traded at a loss, but maybe the other two slaves knew that even if they were unsuccessful they would not be punished for following orders. Maybe they knew they would be commended for at least trying to grow his investment, for using their initiative and for doing his will.
Even a loving God expects us to do his will and to work hard on his behalf, notwithstanding that the path he asks us to tread may seem tough at times. A loving, generous God surely also expects us to make the most of the time and the resources we have.
I wonder, is the parable is more about how we view and perceive God and our level of understanding and insight into Jesus’ teaching? The way we live reflects how we view him. Do we make do with what we think we know of God already? Do we live in fear of his judgement? Or do we seek to grow in faith and knowledge of him and to share the joy and riches of his kingdom, confident in his love and forgiveness if we get things wrong?
As one writer puts it, in the spiritual life there’s no such thing as standing still. If we cease to grow we shrink. Maybe that’s the essence of verse 29.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer…..